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Iowa City Patch City Manager Interview: Part Four, On the Future. A More Urban and Regional City?

We conclude our account of our interview with Iowa City City Manager Tom Markus with his thoughts on the future of Iowa City.


We have reached the end of our interview with City Manager Tom Markus.

Last month, Iowa City Patch sat down with Markus and talked with him on a variety of issues including high density apartments, maintaining neighborhoods, retail, and the trouble with TIF.

In this final portion of the interview, we talk about Iowa City's need to develop partnerships with its neighbor cities and Johnson County as a whole. Markus also gives us some of his vision for Iowa City's future.

Click for Part One, Focusing on TIF and the unintended consequences of government incentives.

Click for Part Two, where Markus talks about high-density apartments and stabilizing neighborhoods.

Click for Part Three, where we discuss the city's potential responsibility to help the southside redevelop.

(Editor's Note: This is an abridged and edited version of the interview)


Iowa City Patch: Do you get the sense that it's become more of a regional relationship, just in general, between Iowa City and the rest of Johnson County?

Tom Markus: Yeah, I think that's exactly where problems need to be addressed and dealt with over the long run. In our Johnson County area, we need to approach these conflicts with more of a regional approach. Today we can't rely on just Iowa City to provide the animal shelter and the senior center and the only full-time fire department, and a number of other services that we do today; where in the old days, when we were the major population center, it probably made sense for us to do a lot of those things.

As this whole region grows, we can't expect to shoulder the burden beyond our borders. I think those collaborative models are what needs to happen, otherwise places like Iowa City are going to suffer, because we can't continue to provide things to others beyond our borders without any kind of return on it.

It just consumes a lot of our efforts. For example, our attention is diverted to animal shelter issues, but everybody else, they don't have to worry about those issues. We handle the landfill, too. Some of those things quite frankly should migrate eventually to a regional level.

Iowa City Patch: Is the combination of growth in Johnson County along with disappearing federal funding what is creating this push toward partnerships?

Markus: I've been dealing with it for the last 20 more years. It's a difficult thing to talk about, because you have to give to receive, and that's the kind of the equation that works out on a regional basis. You give up local autonomy to some degree, you give up local authority, you give up control, to get a more uniform distribution of cost, and a more uniform distribution of service level.

That's something that can be a problem, because it really depends on where that control is going to go.

Iowa City Patch: I want to end talking a little bit about the downtown. With so many changes taking place, how do you see Iowa City being able to maintain its character while also moving forward with growth?

Markus: That kind of goes with the whole discussion we're having about neighborhood stabilization, as well as our commercial areas in the downtown. The historic preservationists around the country realize that if you're going to save certain architecture, you're going to save certain facades, what's behind those has to be economically viable. A lot of places don't want to make those sorts of tradeoffs, but it's like the environment, it's like everything else, it's about balance. I always say "How much environment can you afford? How much historic preservation can you afford?" Because if it isn't viable it's probably not going to last.

In our area, there is so much new competition that the downtown is trying to compete with, so again we have to look at what we're building. Personally, and I've said this since I've come here, I think there are all sorts of opportunities to create a denser area, with a palate for mixed uses-- retail office, retail service, entertainment, dining, bars, residential. What you have to keep doing to keep working on that balance of mixes of uses so you maximize the space.

If you look at downtown, and this downtown I think is five decks with parking facilities -- they're constantly sharing things, right? You go to an autocentric, suburban environment, and the big surface parking lot, and they've got so many spaces designated so many square feet of space, and each one has a driveway in and a driveway out. Well in a traditional downtown, you bring vehicles to a designated point, they use it for the time they need and they're gone, they don't have designated space for each spot. You have on street parking, you use it and you're gone.

It's a very different model, and a lot of people don't put that together. So we're in an urban model, and our neighborhoods even are in more of an urban model than some of our neighbors, which I think tend to be more in a suburban model. That doesn't mean we don't have suburban type neighborhoods, because we do have those, too, but I think you have to approach things in an urban setting differently than you do in a suburban setting.

I think the urban setting, if we invest correctly and build correctly, I think it can be a very viable area for us for a long time to come.

Iowa City Patch: I've heard some concerns from people about the mixed use properties where there are the residential properties on the top and the commercial properties on the bottom. The criticism that I've heard is that those are mostly vacant on the bottom. Is that a valid criticism?

Markus: Well I think we may have forced some of those criteria, and did not collaborate with individuals that understand what those spaces would be used for. I think we've corrected a lot of those situations, I think a lot of those retail areas were not built for contemporary retail -- they didn't have high enough storefront ceilings, for example. There are certain things retail is looking for in a modern setting, so the thought was you could just have an empty floor and call it retail and assume it will fill up. Was there a market analysis done there? I'm not sure there was.

So maybe we overbuilt that, and maybe we didn't build that to contemporary standards to begin with.

Some of that has changed but we are looking how to adapt to that, but I think that's where we have probably on occasion misstepped and not collaborated enough with the private sector.

Iowa City Patch: When you say corrected, what did you do?

Markus: I think they've just raised the height of the first floor retail, and they've required a higher standard of building, things like that.

Iowa City Patch: So that's something where with future zoning that will be more practical for retail.

Markus: Absolutely, if you look at the downtown area and see things made by people like Marc Moen and what he builds, that has not been an issue with how he's done it. So I think you have to listen to that private sector and pay attention to those sorts of things. If they push the envelope too far then you have to direct it back, but you have to listen to the people who are actually going to be making the investments.

Iowa City Patch: The University of Iowa is obviously growing, too. How do you manage them growing into the downtown, that blending that seems to be constantly happening?

Markus: First off I'd say that we have a very good relationship with the university. It's open and I think it's very respectful, we have a dialogue where we can go back and forth -- they share a lot of information with us and we try to do the same in reverse. They understand that a commercially viable and attractive downtown is critical for their success. Not just to attract students, but for the instructors and faculty and staff that come here.

They have been supportive of what we've been trying to do. To the extent that we can "blend" uses, and I think that's a good term, that's a good way to go about it. Because what it does, is it creates foot traffic. In a downtown, what you typically need is foot traffic to support those stores. We have a tremendous amount of foot traffic already from the university, so if you can strategically put those different uses together it doesn't have to be mutually exclusive, it can benefit both. So you can build retail, where it can have some floors where maybe some instruction goes on, or maybe some university offices are located in the upper stories. That kind of mix is a good thing.

Remember, there's the horizontal first floor, but then there's all this vertical. And the vertical in the downtown area has not been tapped anywhere close to where it should be.

Iowa City Patch: So that's more of the urban thinking.

Markus: Yes. And that's where I think we need to get the thinking in this town.  Once that's determined to be acceptable, blending university and retail and private uses could fit very well. Integrating both things together like that, foot traffic, users for restaurants, users for retail, users for living down there, office spaces, it just creates a vibrant interactive community.

The old zoning model was rigid lines where, you know, this fits there and this fits there, this fits there. The urban model tends to integrate things more vertically, somewhat horizontally, but mostly vertically, and I think if you can do those sorts of things that can really help this downtown.

Iowa City Patch: What do you think this city is growing into, by say 2020? Is it growing into a bigger, more metro college town, like a Madison?

Markus: Actually I think it could be something very unique, beyond what other places are. The lines in some of the other university towns I've been are a little bit more rigid than they are here, and I don't think blurring those lines is a big problem. Like I've said, mixing some of those uses, having those types of interactions, that's a good thing.

I would hope that our model is much more urban, especially in this downtown  concentrated area. I would hope that we could provide more residential opportunities especially for individuals who are looking for places, like the baby boomer population, who don't want big yards and want to avoid an autocentric sort of environment.

Stephen Schmidt April 03, 2012 at 04:03 PM
What do you think about the future of Iowa City?

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